Thursday, 13 August 2020

'Context matters: Collating the past’


Declaration of interest, a couple of days ago, I received from the author a complimentary copy of a volume I know he'd been working on for some time and came out recently. I thought I'd write a few words about it here. 
The book is David W.J. Gill, 2020 'Context matters: Collating the past’ ARCA Publications (place of publication: probably Columbia SC, USA) 291 pp index ISBN-13: 978-1734302615.

This handsome volume is a collation of some 30 essays, reviews and articles by Professor David Gill that had been published in ARCA's Journal of Art Crime (JAC) in the past decade, but here set out in thematic blocks with a linking commentary. 

These essays (in a JAC feature called 'context matters') revolve around museum objects and ancient art, mainly from the classical world with a strong focus on issues concerning the relationships between museums (US ones in particular) and source countries. The author points out that the texts that were published in JAC did not cover in much detail the broader aspects of ‘repatriation’ of objects and indeed whole architectural elements taken to foreign museums as Grand Tour trophies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nor of the degree to which products of modern fakery ‘can be inserted into and corrupt the corpus of knowledge’ (p. 13). 

I have long followed David’s work, and have probably read a fair number of these texts before in one form or another over the last decade or so, and of course consider that each of them is an important contribution to the field. His readers will know that David’s approach is an unassuming one of quiet, logical objectivity, and in his texts many of the touchier issues tend to be formulated as questions, inviting the reader to use the information presented to form their own opinions and ask their own questions. This perhaps can seduce the reader into not seeing their immediate impact. Having these texts collated (see title) in a single volume grouped thematically gives them a new resonance. The intertextualities and pattern of the author’s thought become more visible. Indeed one might say that there could be no better illustration of the concept „context matters” than what these individually meaningful texts say when they are all presented in the context of each other. 

The introduction, pp 9-16, sets out the story of how the author became involved in research on these topics, going back a quarter of a century, but also relating the essays here to wider issues. There are eight sections: I, International agreements; II, The AAMD and its members; III, Returning antiquities; IV, Compliance and due diligence (introducing the concept “collecting histories”); V, Curators; VI, Looting and the market; VII, Perspectives from England; VIII, Debating cultural property (reviews of books by Cuno, Waxman and Jenkins). Some of the sections and essays have separate bibliographies, with the main one at the end of the volume, but it makes sense once you see how the volume is put together. 

Much of the emphasis in the first part of the volume is on the trade in objects from Italy and Greece and the USA as a voracious consumer, and the Sotheby’s and Medici scandal (with its cache of polaroids) as the link between the two. Along the way we are treated to cameos on the Ny Carlesberg Glyptotek, and my two favourite as-yet unresolved cases of the Ka Nefer Nefer mummy fragment and the Leutwitz (“Cleveland”) Apollo, both of which the art market somehow believes to have physically existed in two different places at the same time (like the herm in Chapter 17). This is often a problem when the antiquities trade attempts to produce documents for collecting histories, they so often give the impression of (ahem) having been simply made up. 

Section V introduces the issue of the role and importance of academics in the antiquities trade, a topic raised by Renfrew two decades ago, but a lesson we are still learning (in particular now in the fields of cunies and papyri – the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ is a case in point). But it seems that we are slow learners, this is still an area that needs much more discussion and, especially, a much closer formulation of codes of practice /ethics for archaeologists (and not only).

Section VI introduces the issues of conflict antiquities. The first essay goes into looting in the Balkans, the role of Bulgaria (and its mafia) in the supply of the antiquities market in the early 1990s, the second touches on the acquisition of objects from war-torn Syria and Iraq, the third on looting of museums and storerooms in Libya and Egypt as well as Italy and Greece. 

There are not many other authors from whom in the context of portable antiquities I’d be glad to see a section labelled ‘perspectives from England’ (normally, on seeing such a title in English, as we say in Poland “the knife already opens in my pocket”). This is because most British colleagues would just parrot some vacant stuff about the ‘benefits’ of collaboration and partnership and ‘public engagement with the past’, without putting that in any context. Gill is far more astute and takes two cases of recent discoveries where the Portable Antiquities Scheme was involved in notable finds, the so-called Crosby Garrett Helmet and the Lenborough Hoard, both of them tragic fiascos in archaeological terms. Few other archaeologists have had the gumption to have called-out these two finds in this way. My main regret is that David’s pieces on the PAS (2010a and 2010b) were not in JAC but elsewhere so they do not appear here. 

The final section rehearses some of David’s responses to the very curious reasoning of other supporters of portable antiquities collecting (though in the museum context). 

I like very much the way some of the information is presented in the form of tabulation. What is revealing is that in most cases these are not tabulations of known collecting histories, but rather the steps by which we reconstruct what really happened (or what we do not know). We need to come up with a term for this process (because we can't call it "provenance research" really).* 

What I find missing is a comprehensive presentation here of David's thoughts on one puzzling aspect. Since even before we read this book, we'd most of us say yes, "context matters" (and "looting matters"). So why, actually are there all these illustrious people and institutions described here behaving as though it's utterly unimportant, that what is important is some trophy "artwork" to display and brag about. Yet as Elizabeth Marlowe (2013) shows (and should have been well-known before that publication too), context and 'grounding' are by no means a problem relating to legitimacy of ownership, but the very interpretation of the object (even one that is treated as 'art'). It affects the interpretation in research, the manner of representation in display and museum practice - so why was it so gaily ignored in all the cases Gill discusses? 

This book deserves to be on the reading lists of students in a number of fields (archaeology, cultural heritage studies, museology, and criminology come to mind). It provides a useful summary of a series of matters that are difficult to follow from the scattered sources (just look at the size of his bibliography) and is useful in that it focuses attention on a specific set of material that highlight the core issues and can provide the foundations for further discussions. 

 As a booklover, I cannot fail to mention the book’s appealing design (by Ur?ka Charney). This volume entrances, from the subtle restraint of the very tactile cover and the page setup that unites the separate sections, gives them a robust but open character that makes the volume a delightful object in its own right. 

References

David Gill 2010a The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the Archaeology of England and Wales? Papers from the Institute of Archaeology (PIA) vol 20, 1-11 


Elizabeth Marlowe 2013, Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Debates in archaeology. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic

Colin Renfrew, 2000. Loot, legitimacy and ownership: The ethical crisis in archaeology.London. London: Duckworth. 


* [Having said that, in my opinion, the collecting history of the Leutwitz Apollo as presented by Professor Gill p.44 is missing one important sighting, which in fact changes everything, but I may have written about this after his original article went to press].  


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